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Viewer Beware

Wednesday, March 16, 2005; Page A22

WHAT DOES Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" have in common with the Bush administration? They're both unabashed about putting out fake news. The Bush administration's version consists of video news releases -- government-produced, government-funded spots packaged to look and sound like regular television reports, complete with fake news reporters signing off from Washington. These are intended to be, and often are, aired by local television stations without any indication that the government is behind them. The Government Accountability Office found this kind of phony news to be impermissible "covert propaganda." It warned the government last month that such prepackaged news stories must be accompanied by a "clear disclosure to the television viewing audience" of the government's involvement. The Bush administration is now instructing its officials to ignore the GAO -- which is where (in addition to the question of comedic content) the administration and Mr. Stewart diverge. He wants you to know his news is phony.

Although this administration apparently isn't the first to use video news releases, it seems more enamored of them than its predecessors. For example: A spot commissioned by the Transportation Security Administration lauds "another success" in the Bush administration's "drive to strengthen aviation security," which the "reporter" describes as "one of the most remarkable campaigns in aviation history."

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It's humiliating that local news stations, however short-staffed and desperate for footage, would allow themselves to be used this way. Indeed, as the New York Times reported Sunday, some have even lopped off government attribution when it was included or pretended the government reporter was one of their own. Even so, it's disingenuous for administration officials to blame the stations, given that many releases are crafted precisely to disguise their government origin.

This technique is both illegal and unwise. As a legal matter, the prepackaged news releases run afoul of the prohibition on the use of government funds for domestic "propaganda." The administration's interpretation -- it's okay to hide the source as long as the spot is "purely informational" -- is untenable: Highlighting some "facts" and leaving out others can be even more persuasive than outright advocacy, which is why the administration chose this device. More important, this kind of propaganda masquerading as news is a deceitful way for a democratic government to do business; fake journalists paid by the government to deliver its version of news are as disturbing as real commentators paid by the government to tout its views. White House press secretary Scott McClellan defended the video news releases on Monday as "an informational tool to provide factual information to the American people." Nice sentiment, but why, exactly, wouldn't the administration want to let the people in on one of the most salient facts: who, really, is doing the talking?

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